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Confidential informants put themselves in harm’s way to bust high-level drug dealers

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ROCHESTER, Minn. (KTTC) — Rochester was named a high-intensity drug trafficking area this year.

As officers respond to daily drug-related crimes and record volumes of narcotics are seized, police look for ways to keep up. 

Lt. Frank Ohm of the Rochester Police Department described the severity of the constant influx.

“The amount of illegal substances being trafficked into our city on a daily basis is unacceptable,” Ohm said. “And we need to work hard to fight that.”

In some cases, that means working with outside help. Police need information from people who can get to places they can’t, sources with access to dealers who trust them. This usually means former drug users that volunteer to become confidential informants in order to build a case against traffickers.

Olmsted County Attorney Mark Ostrem knows how important they can be when building a case.

“It’s important to have somebody that’s got some sort of inside information to help law enforcement to be able to further that investigation,” Ostrem said. 

Such operations are considered high-risk for informants in more ways than one.

Danielle Fanslow is an addiction treatment specialist for the Zumbro Valley Health Center, and spoke on how stepping back into the circles of addiction can throw someone off the path to recovery.

“They’re risking their sobriety and their recovery and not realizing it because they don’t have the tools yet to stop themselves from using,” Fanslow said. “If you’re out there, and you’re doing a controlled buy with a dealer, first of all, it’s not safe.”

An undercover Rochester police officer that works directly with informants acknowledged the risk that comes with the investigations.

“You know, we don’t just throw them in blind,” he said. “We know the target we’re using them for, we know the situation. And we have safety plans in place to rescue that informant if needed. And there’s been times that we’ve called off the operation.”

But maintaining that confidentiality can prove to be challenging as the prosecution moves forward. 

“If and when we ever get to a trial and that person is actually a necessary witness, then we do have to reveal their identity and we do need to have them testify,” Ostem said. “Occasionally, that happens.”

One operation lead to the arrest of Michele Williams, who had sold to an informant more than 100 times. She was convicted of third degree murder, after the informant she sold to died of a heroin overdose. 

It’s an obsession and a compulsion,” Fanslow said. “So if a substance user goes and buys this drug, and they have it in their hand, and then they take it, and they go give it to police, you’re going to obsess about it. And more than likely, you’re going to use.”

The undercover officer believes that the benefits outweigh the danger.

Using some of these I guess lower level offenders to get to the higher level offenders that cause more harm to the city of Rochester and surrounding areas is worth it,” he said. 

Ohm shared the same view.

Without the use of confidential informants, this community is a far less safe community,” he said. 

Undercover investigations continue to play a pivotal role in the drug war, as it continues with no end in sight. 

Kilat Fitzgerald

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